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Freethought Today · November 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

‘This house does not believe in God’

By Dan Barker
Co-President
Freedom From Religion Foundation

Steve Dan Dan

FFRF members Steve Aldred (left) and Daniel Saiz (right) joined FFRF Co-President Dan Barker for a post-debate reception.

I’ve done more than 100 debates as an atheist, but really looked forward to my first visit to Oxford, England, to debate the proposition, “This House Believes in God.” Members of the Oxford Society invited me, Michael Shermer and Peter Millican (philosophy, Hertford College) for a formal debate Nov. 8.

We teamed up against theists John Lennox (well-known Oxford professor of mathematics and philosophy), Peter Hitchens (journalist, author and former atheist) and Anglican priest Joanna Collicut (co-author of The Dawkins Delusion). 

It was a formal black-tie evening, so I brought my nice tuxedo that I use for playing jazz gigs and country clubs. I’m sure I was the only person in the room with piano keyboard suspenders.

The Oxford Union is “the world’s most prestigious debating society, with an unparalleled reputation for bringing international guests and speakers to Oxford.” Founded in 1823, it welcomes and encourages controversy. “The Oxford Union believes first and foremost in freedom of speech: nothing more, nothing less.”

Many of the protocols of modern-day British Parliament stem from Oxford Union customs. Eleven British prime ministers, starting with W.E. Gladstone, have been officers or members. Dozens of other members have gone on to become nationally and internationally prominent figures.

Famous speakers at the Union include many presidents and prime ministers, actors, sports figures, authors, journalists, the Dalai Lama, Malcolm X, Salman Rushdie, Mother Teresa, Philip Pullman, Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein.

The formality was enhanced by the fact that Richard Dawkins was in the audience. After a delicious supper and preliminaries, the main event began. We spoke with no microphones in the formal Debate Chamber, with hardwood floor and busts of famous people around the red walls.

We stood on respective sides of a practical table on the floor (no lofty pulpits), with most of the audience at the same level, and many in the balconies above us. We were each allotted 15 minutes. 

John Lennox, our most formidable and articulate opponent, went first, speaking for the proposition. John has a likable relaxed personality, a warm avuncular style with an Irish twinkle in his eyes.

Atheism is illogical, Lennox asserted, because “nothing comes from nothing.” There is no contradiction between science and faith. An immaterial God is free to show himself to us in a material way using revelation, and the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus is clear evidence for the existence and power of such a being.

According to Lennox, the constants (forces or parameters) of the cosmos are so exquisitely balanced that if one of them were off by the tiniest fraction, we would not be living in a universe hospitable to life. Besides, without a belief in the Christian God, there is no hope.

My turn

I spoke next, for the opposition. It was my job to introduce the main ideas in opposition to theistic belief, putting as much as possible on the table for our opponents to rebut and setting the stage for Michael and Peter to drive the points home using their considerable areas of expertise.

I prepared a 10-minute opening, anticipating that I might appreciate the extra five-minute elbow room to insert specific rebuttals or allow interruptions from the floor. I turned to Lennox and said, “If nothing comes from nothing, God cannot exist.” A god, if such a being exists, is not nothing. To exclude the desired conclusion from the premise is to beg the question.

Smuggling God into the reasoning that is supposed to prove his existence also results in an incoherency, a “married bachelor,” a something that comes from the nothing from which something cannot come. If “God” is defined as an omniscient being with free will, then he cannot exist.

If you know the future, you cannot have free will. Foreknowledge of your own decisions rules out any ability to change your mind. You are a robot, not a personal being. 

In response to interruptions, I briefly sketched the cumulative case that belief in a god suffers from serious deficiencies: lack of coherent definition, lack of evidence, lack of good argument (many theistic arguments are merely “god-of-the-gaps” explanations), lack of moral and theological agreement among believers, lack of good response to the problem of evil, and the lack of reliability of so-called holy books.

I turned to Lennox to counter that the resurrection of Jesus is the worst example anyone could offer as evidence for a god, and explained why. I ended with the fact that there is no need for a god: Tens of millions of good people have lives of purpose, morality, love, meaning, happiness, beauty and hope without such a belief.

As I returned to my seat next to Michael Shermer, he said “Bravo! You nailed it!” and we did high fives.

Then it was Joanna Collicut’s turn to argue for the proposition. I listened carefully, ready to take notes, but her monotone remarks were so vague, so Sunday morning sermonish, I really don’t remember what she said.

Michael Shermer virtually leaped to the table to take up for the opposition. He made the case that god beliefs are neurological, psychological, sociological, anthropological and historical. He challenged the audacity of pretending that out of the thousands of gods and religions, you just happen to possess the correct one.

“I simply believe in one less god than you do,” he said, eliciting much laughter and applause. He talked about pattern recognition and agency detection, Type 1 versus Type 2 errors (thinking the noise in the grass is the wind rather than a predator), showing that god belief is a Type 1 error (false positive) that was useful to our prescientific ancestors for survival reasons.

Very different Peters

Then came Peter Hitchens, the believing Anglican brother of Christopher Hitchens. (If anyone doubts the fact of evolutionary variation, just look at those two brothers.) Hitchens was combative and unfriendly, pitching ad hominem assaults. “I decided that I would abandon any pretense at being Mr. Nice Guy,” he wrote the next day. “Why would anyone want the universe to be a pointless chaos, where our actions could be judged only by their immediate observable effects, a universe utterly without the hope of justice, where death was the end and the deaths of those we loved extinguished them irrevocably? Well, the question, once asked, rather answers itself, doesn’t it?”

Hitchens apparently does believe all questions answer themselves because he brusquely declined interruptions from the audience.

Peter Millican, on our side, was last. He was brilliant and deftly handled the theistic arguments raised by Lennox, responding with philosophical rebuttals to the “fine tuning” argument, and the problem of evil. If there actually were an afterlife, how would future “justice” make our current suffering any less harmful?

When he sat down, I said, “Strike three! They’re out.” And I was right. At the end of the event, President John Lee announced to the audience that they were to “vote with your feet.” Our side won.

So although the exact proposition was indeed about belief and not knowledge, I think it is fair to say that it has been decided, by an Oxford vote no less, that there is no god.

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